Heroes

It was August 28th and Cindy Bingham knew her father, Walter, had fallen off the wagon again.

He’d gotten falling-down drunk around this time for each of the twenty-one years since August 28, 1862 etched its physical and emotional wounds upon him that never quite healed.

After sitting all night in a rocking chair by the fireplace in the Bingham home outside Stony Point, New York, Cindy heard the thud outside. This time Walter’s fall was as literal as could be. His brother-in-law Hiram Mott thought he saw Walt misstep onto the dusty road from the front seat of Hiram’s rig as it slowly passed in front of the Bingham place at dawn on August 29, 1883. Hiram had been drinking with Walt all day, just to keep him safe, but was too drunk to do much about his brother-in-law’s tumble anyway.

The clop-clop of his horses’ hooves drowned any sound from behind as they never stopped. The pair of bays just kept trotting north to the Mott place, their reins slack and their master dozing along for the ride. They’d made the trip many times with Hiram before.

Walter’s fall was also from his normal sobriety. That date and its memories had again set him to drinking day and night since the evening of the 26th.

Cindy Bingham found her father by the side of the road when she emerged bleary-eyed from the house about the time she normally would begin the day’s milking. It was a job she shared with her father since the death of her mother, Martha, two years before.

Always he would turn into this other Walt at the end of August. Then he’d slowly return to the quiet, sober and loving husband to Martha and father to Cynthia everyone knew as the local hero.

As she helped her father into the house, she recalled Walt hardly ever took out that medal, with its blue ribbon with thirteen red and white stripes, honoring his heroism,. Most especially not at the end of August. Instead, he’d only pull out the three old photographs that portrayed five smiling young men posing in impeccable uniforms whose exotic design was borrowed from the French Zouaves.

All of these young men wore the confident and guileless grins of soldiers who had not faced an enemy in combat. They’d not yet left Stony Point and heard the whiz and crunch of enemy bullets missing or finding their mark. They’d yet to feel the body-shaking concussion of a Parrot shell as it obliterated the men next to you and threw you six feet away, turning the world into swirls of red, white and gray. They had not yet “seen the elephant,” as the veteran soldiers described their baptisms in fire.

As she peeled Walter’s filthy clothes off her father before putting him to bed, Cindy Bingham recalled the first time she equated this room with this date.

When she was eight, she watched from the barely open bedroom door as Walt opened the cigar box where he kept the photos that turned him from doting father to brooding and distant stranger. That was when she connected the date and the contents of the box with an abnormally short and frightening temper. She had seen him lash out with his voice and the back of his hand to her mother should she try too much to console him. That day, she watched Walt carry his photos to the barn, where he sat with his back to its south-facing red wall. He gazed at them when he wasn’t staring into space or covering his eyes and shaking his shoulders.

Cindy remembered how she crept to the clothes press where Walt kept the box and opened its lid to see whatever could make her father change so.

Inside, she found the medal. It was a tarnished upside-down five-pointed star topped by an eagle perched on crossed cannons. The star was suspended from a ribbon that reminded her of the flag under which her father was said to have fought with great distinction in the War of Southern Rebellion. Beneath the medal, along with some documents and letters, she found another photo of her father, its image face-down. The photo was of Walt Bingham in the plain blue uniform of an Army sergeant, a grim and tired expression on his face and the still-shiny medal pinned to his chest.

The little girl heard the bedroom door open and there stood Walt, his eyes rimmed in red.

“What are you doing?” he said, in a voice caught somewhere between anger and anguish. He rushed to her and, before he could take the box from her, Cindy dropped it in fear, its contents spilling on the bedroom floor.

“Look what you’ve done. Don’t ever touch this box again, girl or I’ll…” Walter raised his hand as if he might strike Cindy, but stopped and dropped to his knees to put the photos, documents and medal back in it. Cindy, in tears, rushed past her father and downstairs to her mother. Together, Martha and Cindy watched as Walter rode away from the house and did not return until August 29, as drunken and disheveled as the man she was helping into their home on this morning in 1882.

* * * *

Once she was back in the kitchen, Walter softly snoring off his bender, Cindy thought back to when she was ten, when she finally got the courage to ask her father the question that had burned in her for two years.

“Daddy, why do you get so sad and angry when August turns to September?”

Walter Bingham, softly put his mug of coffee down on the kitchen table, closed his eyes and mumbled, “You’re not old enough to understand, Cynthia. I hope you never have to. Now go help your mother, please.”

It was her mother, Martha, who told Cindy that her father had returned from the war a changed man.

“He left New York a cheerful and strapping boy, so dashing in his blue jacket with its and red brocade trim, his baggy crimson trousers. I watched the gold tassel on his red kepi bounce to the martial air they played while his regiment marched to the train in Peekskill, bound for Baltimore that morning in 1861. He was the most handsome boy in that regiment.”

“Were you proud of him?” Cindy asked.

“Oh, my yes. He was my betrothed and I was the envy of all my friends. But, inside, I was terrified of what might happen to him, how I might become a war widow before we’d ever become married.”

“And what happened when he was away and then came back?” Cindy asked, because this was the answer she really wanted.

“In three years, that dashing boy returned a wounded hero. The people of Stony Point greeted him with honors fit for a victorious returning knight. The young man who limped off the train resembled my beloved Walter, but he was not the same boy I’d kissed goodbye. And that’s all I’ll say right now, Cynthia. Now off to school with you,” Martha said, giving Cindy a kiss, then turning to her dishes and pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve to dab at her eye and across her nose.

* * * *

Cindy made a pot of coffee, as much for her sleep-deprived self as for her deeply sleeping father. As she waited for the water to boil, she knew that by the second week of September, he would return to his normal self. Once again he’d be the loving and industrious Walt Bingham she knew better than anyone. Once again, he’d be a citizen of Stony Point who people would always greet on the streets with a doffed hat and a simple and warm, “Good morning, Walt!” or nod of the head and proper “Hello, Mr. Bingham. Good day to you, sir.”

Walt would politely acknowledge his treatment as the town’s foremost citizen, though he eschewed any attempts to draw him into political circles or any public activities, including meetings of the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Three years ago, when she was fifteen, it was through a talk with one of those veterans, her uncle Hiram, that Cynthia learned the true genesis of her father’s hero status. That and his annual temporary metamorphosis into a drunken misanthrope.

“It happened at a place called Manassas in Virginia, Cindy,” Hiram said. “Your papa’s company was in reserve of other units who were putting up a great battle against the forces of the Rebel General Jackson, a brilliant soldier and brutal man who got his comeuppance in ’63 at Chancellorsville. But that’s neither here nor there to Walt’s story.”

“His company was ordered to fill a gap on the left side of the line, where the 5th New York was taking a terrible fire and beginning to falter. Your papa rushed up and took his position just as the 5th began falling back. Men were dropping, dead or wounded, all around him. The ground was so covered with them in their tattered once-grand uniforms that Walter had to quick-step atop their bodies to rush up to his position in the line,” Hiram said.

Cynthia gasped.

“Sorry to spell it out like this, little niece, but I think you should know why your papa is the way he is. Now amid all this chaos, Walter’s company, under fierce fire, began to waver and fall back. He, with a handful of other men, began running down a ravine that led toward our lines. In the woods above this little group of New York boys, Walt saw the Reb officers were dressing their line before making another charge. Your papa, already a corporal and a very smart soldier, realized the Rebels would likely strike at our big guns protecting the entire Corps’ left flank. That’s when he left his friends to go alert the artillery to their danger,” Hiram said, crossing his arms and rubbing his chin whiskers with his left hand.

“The Rebs saw what Walt was doing and started firing at him. I was with the guns and we watched him running like a rabbit, never expecting him to make it. He sprinted through the enemy fire, bullets tearing at his uniform and one ball cutting across his ribs,” Hiram said.

“I’ve seen the scar. Papa always tries to cover it, but I’ve seen it,” Cindy said.

“When he went down, we thought sure he was dead. But son of a bitch if he didn’t pop right back up and start running again. Funny thing about that. While we was hollering for Walter to run, the Rebs was cheering for him, too. Not that they wasn’t still trying to kill him, of course. When he got to the artillery commander, your papa reported the enemy were gathering in force in the woods on his left flank and the colonel would lose his guns if he did not limber them up and get them the blazes out of there. Which they did, by the scarcest of margins. They most surely would have been lost, our flank overrun and the whole army lost with them if not for your papa. After they patched Walter up and the officers made their report of what he did, they awarded Walt that Medal of Honor,” Hiram said and then spat at the ground.

“And that’s why he’s sad every year at this time? You would think he would be proud to have earned that medal. He’s a hero,” Cindy said, beaming with pride after hearing the story her father never told.

“Well, sweet girl, that’s not how war works. War affects men in different ways. Your papa was pretty shaken up by that Reb ordnance and musket fire chasing him down the ravine and the bullet that tore through his side. But what really wounded him was the fact that all the men he was with up on the line were lost. And those four men he broke off from to warn our guns? Not two seconds later, a Reb shell burst in their midst and, well…let’s just say they were lost, too. Walt was the only survivor of his whole platoon.” Hiram spat again.

“Those four men wouldn’t be…”

“The young fellas in that photograph he keeps? Yes, dear girl. All school chums who joined up for the fancy outfits that impressed the girls like your Mama, the precision marching that impressed themselves, and to put down the secession in a couple of months. It took four years and thousands of lives. Some, like Walter, are still walking around, still sharing the warmth of his loved ones. But, come the anniversary of that day, he goes dead as his friends inside, too. Now you dry those tears, girl, and know how lucky you are to have Sergeant Walter Bingham of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry as your father. And to know you have Walt Bingham, as strong and saintly a man as ever drawn breath, as your papa, period.”

It was that day Cindy vowed to help soften her loving but quiet father’s sadness, pain, guilt, or whatever tortured him so, most especially every late August.

* * * *

Her father still sleeping off 1883’s sorrowful fall, Cynthia discussed her father’s invisible wounds with her beau, Robert Van Wormer, who stopped by to see how she was faring with her father back home.

“My father tries so hard, Robert. And Lord knows I did my best to make sure everything was neat and quiet and loving these past years since Mama died. She once told me she almost made it happen one year when I was two. She hid the cigar box and the photographs from him. But by noon on the 28th, he became so melancholy, she said she thought he would harm himself. That’s when she gave in and showed him where she’d put it,” Cindy said with a catch in her throat.

“Out came the pictures and Mother said Daddy was gone for the next day and a half. That date has a power over him that she could never rein in and I’m not sure how I can. It’s like the sadness lies in the ground like a cicada and pops out to overwhelm whatever good we can bring to it. We are lucky he and his faith and love for us was so strong that he can soon enough bury it again until the next year.”

“You know, there may be a way,” Robert said. “Maybe if he took the cure, the whole treatment at the spa up in Saratoga. The waters, the baths, massage, just getting away from all these same faces and places, might just jar him into something other than his melancholy.”

“let me think abut it, Robert. And thank you for being such a love,” Cindy said, kissing Robert on the cheek.

* * * *

Good as his word, Robert suggested taking Walter away from home that August, taking the steamer up the Hudson to Saratoga for the springs and mineral baths, and not returning until the 29th or even the 30th.

“I don’t know if that would be the answer, Robert. But perhaps taking the cure at the Springs might be the thing to help keep my mind at rest and away from those horrible visions, those faces, those… Yes, let’s take the trip,” Walt said to the earnest young man.

A few days later, Walt and Robert were back in Stoney Point, Walt in roughly the same shape as all the preceding August 28ths.

“Robert, what in the world? How did this happen?” Cindy said to her crestfallen beau after they half-carried a very sick Walter to his bed.

“Everything was going extremely well, Cindy. The trip upriver to Albany was beautiful and the train to Saratoga was fine. Your father was a little quiet, perhaps reticent to speak openly of his problems with me, but once we got to the town, I think he actually got caught up in the whole spirit of the place. The baths there were still buzzing after the record win of the Travers Stakes race by a horse name Rataplan. It was all they could talk…”

“Robert, my father? I sent him off with you to avoid another occasion like all those other years. Please explain how he ended up like this while supposedly in your care,”  Cindy said, holding here hand up in front of Robert’s face.

“We were in one of the baths, having just finished a good steam and were getting massages, all part of the treatment I hoped would help your father. We couldn’t help but hear one of the other masseurs talking to a guest on the other side of the room from us. ‘Yes sir,’ he was saying, ‘this old place has quite the history. Famous folks from far and wide have come here for the waters and their healing powers. George Washington himself wanted to buy one of our springs for its bubbling waters. Just last week Commodore Vanderbilt, Diamond Jim Brady and Miss Lillian Russell herself stopped by for the baths and a massage. Why even that Rebel General Stonewall Jackson came right to Saratoga for the mineral springs and such on his honeymoon with the second Mrs. Jackson.’”

“Oh, no,” Cindy said.

“Next thing I hear is your father’s masseur saying, ‘Sir, please, you’ll have to relax just a little. You’ve stiffened up rather severely.’ Straight away, Walter, not even bothering to cover himself with a sheet, ran out of the room to grab his clothes and disappear out a back door. I couldn’t catch him, Cindy. I’m so sorry. I spent the day and night scouring every saloon and casino I could find searching for him. I eventually found Walt the next morning, the 28th, out cold in an alley behind the Adelphi Hotel on Broadway. I cleaned him up best I could, and we took the next train to Albany and on home.”

“Oh, Robert, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve to be brought into this so deeply,” Cindy said.

“I don’t think there’s any more we can do, Cindy. That date and those memories are too strong. And, if I am to be Walter’s son-in-law some day, his welfare will be as much my problem as yours,” Robert said, as he took Cindy’s hand.

In October of that same year, Robert asked Walter for Cynthia’s hand in marriage. Cindy could see her father’s habitually passive expression Walter was overjoyed, because he now knew Robert to be a young man of integrity and respect for not only his daughter, but himself as well.

“So have you picked a date for the nuptials, Cindy? Sometime in June? I understand June is the month most brides cherish for the occasion,” Walt said, his arms around his daughter.

“We’ve decided upon August 28th.” She tugged her father closer, as Walt’s embrace grew limp.

“No, Cindy. I can’t, you mustn’t, I…”

“Daddy, Mother always said that it was the horrible memories of what happened on that date in 1862 that hurt you so. And I figured perhaps I could give you something good on that day to help soften some of those bad things,” Cindy said, her eyes welling up.

Walter, a head taller than his daughter, looked not at her, but at the wall behind her, as he would on those days when he would sit with his back to the barn wall, searching for something but not finding it. He gave a great sigh.

“My darling girl, since your mother’s death you are all I have. You are my life. I would not wish to lose you to any man, with the possible exception of young Robert.” Walter gave a slight grin. “And I adore you for this gesture and will accede to your wish. And with God’s help, we shall see you a glorious bride and I the proud and joyful papa come this August 28th next.”

* * * *

On August 24th, 1885, Walter Bingham gave a cigar box to his daughter, telling her to keep it safe for him. And though he was subdued and quiet for the next four days, Walter looked every bit the proud father of the bride as they walked down the aisle of the Reformed Church in Stony Point.

Walter hired a photographer take portraits to remember that day. He kept but one on the mantle of his home for the rest of his life. His daughter had helped turn it into life that, while not as lighthearted and high-spirited as the boy who left Stony Point in 1861, was never again as broken as the man who returned in 1863. In fact, it turned quite hopeful.

The photo on the mantle was a hand-tinted portrait of Walter and Cindy. He in his fine morning coat and cravat and she in her her mother’s wedding dress. On his lapel, beneath the pink rose, he sported a locket containing a small portrait of Martha. On her bodice, Cynthia wore an odd piece of shiny jewelry, which the photographer had painted in watercolor tints of yellow for the upside-down star and pink and blue for the ribbon.

Robert had given Walt the frame in which he displayed it, gilded and bearing one word upon a scroll at its bottom. It read, HEROES.

I was inspired to write “Heroes” by a story I read about some Vietnam vets and decided to superimpose that inspiration, on Memorial Day, upon America’s defining conflict, the Civil War.

This is a revised version of the original, incorporating suggestions by Julie Duffy and other members of the Story-a-Day writers and critique group. My thanks for their insight and generosity.

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On Grafton Lake

“What’s her name?” Matt asked, smiling his practiced interested smile, yet dreading the answer.

“Does it really matter?” Andi said, her eyes losing focus on his as she gazed through her ever-rosy haze, her new lover’s perfection in her mind’s eye.

“No, not really,” escaped around Matt’s smiling shield, the one he had built and buttressed since Andi and he were twelve. That was the day they walked into the woods above his parent’s place on Grafton Lake—Andi and her parents were visiting for the weekend from home in Albany—and Andi kissed him full on the mouth.

“I think I’m in love with you, Matthew,” young Andrea Mezaluna said after pulling her lips away from Matt Harkin’s beet-red face. And then she stuck them right back as if he was a powerful magnet and she a piece of hot steel.

Matt’s hazy pre-teen confusion over Andi’s surprise and surprisingly abrupt pronouncement of her heart’s desire eventually burned off, like morning fog of the lake’s surface, by Sunday afternoon. Their hand-holding and long walks had not gone unnoticed by both sets of parents, who thought it was borderline inevitable, since the two had been playmates, fast friends and classmates since kindergarten.

Before the Mezaluna’s said goodbye to the Harkins for the remaining two weeks of their summer vacation, Matt and Andi walked to the spot where they first kissed. Sitting close, her head on his shoulder, they one last time took in this view of the lake, boats sailing or motoring by on its surface, framed by the pines, maples and birches, and the azure sky flocked with clouds that would gather into a thunderstorm later that evening.

No longer confused nor embarrassed, Matt took Andi’s face in his hands and kissed her as clumsily passionate as a twelve-year-old boy could muster and then said, “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you…”

“Andrea! Time for us to go,” Mrs. Mezaluna called from below.

“…Andrea,” Matt finished. He wasn’t sure if she recognized the significance of the fact he never called her Andrea.

Andi gave him one more kiss, hard, hugging him so close he could feel her heart beat. Or maybe it was an echo of his, he was never sure.

When they walked hand-in-hand out of the woods, the Mezaluna’s were saying their thank you’s and goodbyes to the Harkins from within their car, waiting for their daughter before they’d head for home.

Andi turned toward Matt, hugged him close one more time, kissing him on the cheek and whispering, “Please hurry home, Matt. I don’t think I can stand waiting two whole weeks until I see you again.”

And then she was gone.

When the Harkins returned to their Albany home that Labor Day weekend Sunday, the Mezalunas popped over from next door to invite them to a barbecue in their yard. That’s where Matt saw Andi holding hands with Richie Bischoff, who was thirteen hoping on fourteen, and he got a new understanding for what Andi Mezaluna meant when she said she couldn’t stand waiting two weeks for him.

That was Matt’s first inkling that for Andi, falling in love — which he later felt was her falling into obsession — was what she loved most.

“So she’s The One?” he said in her ear over the din of bar.

“Oh, yes. And she’s crazy about me,” she said, her eyes as shiny and earnest as they always were when her heart was ablaze with a new love.

Reflexively, the corners of Matt’s mouth bowed up, as he recalled all the times she’d run to him with that same expression he fell in love with in sixth grade, flashing that same spark he saw above Grafton Lake that melted his heart, yet ever since then burning down his hopes with it.

He never thought to tell her the truth each time she’d run to him like a little girl excitedly showing a new doll to her best friend. Because he recognized that her best friend was who he was.

He couldn’t bear losing her smiling face, the intimate warmth of how she’d whisper to him, bringing to flaming life any embers of his remaining hope, even knowing they’d burn his heart to ash once more.

This was the procedure she followed throughout high school and into college, where she discovered her attraction to dolls was more than just to the American Girls that still lined her bedroom, but to real American girls, along with one Pakistani and a girl she met in Montreal. Then there’d come the hockey player from Watertown.

Matt had tossed his heart at his share of dolls, too, one Andi had even dated for a couple of weeks. But none of them worked out in the long term. They would give him either the “It’s not you, Matt, it’s me,” speech, or just realizing they couldn’t connect with a guy who had but one carefully tooled connection.

“So, tell me about this mystery woman, Andrea,” he said, that contented smile on his face, drawing close enough to feel her warm breath against his cheek one more time, feeding more fuel to the torch he’d compulsively raise in these dark moments, just to ensure he’d be able to share the only intimacy he ever would with the love of his life.

“Oh, Mattie, I love you,” Andi said with her bubbly laugh, hugging him so close he felt her heart beat just as perhaps she could have felt his heart, breaking, one more time. And it was the moment two twelve-year olds shared above an upstate New York lake and a hope Matt would always have that would glue it back together until the next time Andi fell in love.

And Crown Thy Good…

At the end of the bar, I saw old Mason Snyder sitting in his semi-usual ruminating funk, so I decided to slide my beer down there to here him out and see if we could repair the world a bit together.

After asking why the long face, Mase said, “Last week, I saw a study that broke down the average life expectancy in all the States and the spot with the longest living residents–at 85 years–was in some Colorado ski resort area, while the shortest are in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, where on average, people there can expect to live to age 67,” Mase said.

“Beyond the obvious disparity, is that what’s pissing you off so much?” I asked.

Mase had a long pull on his Bud, took a deep breath and said, “I saw some news bunny ask if the lives of Oglala Lakota County residents there were so short there because they died of boredom out there in the high plains.”

“Uh oh,” I said, knowing the righteous wrath coming in three, two,….

“Yeah, honey, the type of boredom that sets in where you have no prospects to change your life from the grinding poverty of being members of families who’ve essentially been prisoners of war for a century and a half. The type of boredom that drives people to drink and drug themselves into oblivion because they lost the home version of the Manifest Destiny game show. The type of boredom that causes kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation to kill themselves at a ridiculously high rate,” Mase said in his indignant and borderline angry tone when he talked about the treatment of America’s native people.

“That’s pretty tragic,” I said, feeling both sad and guilty watching Mase, who was of mixed Navaho and German heritage, take another gulp of his beer and the breath to go on.

“Oh, and by the way, Miss Talking Hairdo, that average life expectancy was for the whole of Oglala Lakota County, where
the numbers just a few years ago for Pine Ridge Reservation residents only were 52 years for women and fuckin’ 48 for men– 48 years of age and done,” Mase said, spun on his stool and stalked out the bar entrance.

“What the hell was Big Chief Bottom-of-the-Bottle going on about?” Charlie the bartender asked me in the wake of Mase’s diatribe on the mistreatment of red folks by the sorry-ass  Great White (absentee) Father over the years.

“C’mon we’re as guilty as any White Americans in not doing enough–or anything–to help these fellow Americans live better, safer, healthier lives,” I said in my own Mase-stoked righteously indignant tone.

“Yeah, well you tell him for me if he–and you, for that matter–expects to get his firewater in my joint anymore, he’d better keep it down or, better yet, take his whiny shit to some liberal fern bar, ’cause us real Americans don’t want to hear it,” Charlie said, flipping the channel from the fifth inning in Cleveland of another one-sided Mets matinee loss over to Fox News Channel.

A poor pass at my Day 24 effort for Story-A-Day May. The prompt was to write a “Sonnet Story,” one with 14 sentences and carried the sonnet structure, save for no rhyming or anything like that. Just twelve sentences of any length, with or without rhyme or meter. I don’t think I hit the mark of a Petrarchan nor Shakespearean sonnet, but at least it’s written and the data is absolutely correct…and shameful. 

To Do: Now What?

Wednesday, May 24 ~ The Last Day

1.  6:00 AM ~ Wake, shower, shave, kiss Pat goodbye, start commute.

2. Stop at Starbuck’s for Grande Pike Place. Tell barista Alyssa this will be last time I stop by at 7:30 in foreseeable future. Leave $10 tip.

3. Park in Lot C for last time. Try not bouncing like 5th grader too much as you show ID to guard for last time.

4. Pack up the office ~ one box only. Say goodbye to friends

5. Hand in parking permit and ID.

6. Officially retired ~ Check rearview mirror and enjoy the view shrinking.

7. Turn up car stereo to 10 ~ Play “Road Mix”

8. Laugh at commuters cursing on way home.

9. Daydream about what I should have said to He Who Shall Not Be Named boss on way out but didn’t.
Note to self: Fuck him. He’s there for another ten years, if he’s not murdered first. Hah!

10. Instead of gloating, watch out for cops south of Twin Bridges (Now’s no time for first ticket in 30 years).

11. Don’t miss Exit 9 making plans for future.

12. Park car, empty last two week’s Starbuck’s cups from floor behind front seat.

13. Leave box containing 30-year career in garage next to bags of manure, peat moss and other decomposing materials.

14. Take Pat out to dinner to celebrate freedom.

15. Go to bed and dream of all the things you can finally do now that you’re not anchored to The Job.

Thursday, May 25 ~ First Day of Retirement

1. 6:00 AM ~ Wake, shower, shave. Run to Starbuck’s for Venti Pike Place. Leave $1.00 tip.

2. Sit in kitchen, stare at Pat doing housework. Offer to help. Get sent out of room.

3. Take banishment to backyard and wonder about your Plain Language Project and what HWSNBN’s doing about it without you.

4. Resist urge to call work.

5. Wonder when feeling of stepping off cliff, blindfolded, without a net ends.

6. Ask Pat again if there’s anything you can do for her.

7.  Go to Starbuck’s and see what afternoon crowd looks like. (Too many old guys. Can’t relate to Off Track Betting crowd. Remember to bring iPad next time to look artsy.)

8. ? ? ?

9. ! ! !

10. ….

For Day 23 of my Story-a-Day May challenge, I was charged with writing a story in the form of a list. I was dubious if I could make something happen in that format, but I remembered my last day of work before my retirement. Polished with hyperbole and a twist of imagination and here you have a story…I hope.

Never Forget Your First

Remember your first kiss?

“So what was it like? Your first kiss, I mean,” Liz said, figuring she might even know who first pressed her lips against mine and I reciprocated.

Where do women come up with these questions? Why she was so inquisitive about such a ancient history was lost on me. I sure as hell didn’t wish to know who she locked retainers with back in her training bra days.

“Well? Can’t you even remember, Erik?” she said, incredulous that I may have forgotten such a major milestone in my emotional, psychological and sexual education like another lost bit of high school I absent-mindedly tossed on that pile of Pythagorean theories, amo-amas-amat’s, and names of all the noble gases.

“Really, I don’t remember much about it other than it being another dance to hang out at…just softer and smelling better,” I said with a chuckle. Which I soon regretted.

“You’re either closer to a forgetful Alzheimer’s diagnosis than even I thought, or one cold son of a bitch,” Liz said like she was a helium-filled balloon shrinking and sinking to the floor right there in front of icy old me.

“Give me a minute and I promise I’ll let you know all about it,” I said, trying to buy some time to actually remember or at least come up with a plausible story.

So she went to the kitchen, busying herself with fetching me another beer. After all, I was rummaging back into my cluttered closet of a memory to bring forth the mother lode of her need to connect on some level she could tap and understand.

She came back into the room and quietly set a glass of beer on a coaster on the side table. She then curled herself up next to me on the sofa in that way girls do—legs and feet beneath their bottoms like nesting cranes—wrapped the Mexican striped throw around her shoulders and smiled a softly expectant smile at me. Its message was plain: “I’m waiting!”

“I regret that my porous old memory cannot recall every aspect, facet and emotion of that night. I’m not even sure who she was. Rosemary? Barbara? Definitely not Mary Grace. Though, boy, do I wish.”

“Ahem, stick to the knitting, Erik.”

“Okay, I see brown eyes shining up at me, sparkling like polished mahogany in the moonlight, or street light or maybe porch light.”

“That’s a good pull after that clumsy start, Romeo.”

“Yeah, well…I can still feel that cold stab of fear, tempered by hot blasts of potential embarrassment at the very real possibility of  screwing this up and setting my life on a path of remaining forever the untouched one. Obviously, I’ve gotten over that hurdle.”

“The night is young, Erik. Touching will be optional. Go on,” she said, her eyes softening a bit from their clinical observation of my amoebic squirming in the upholstered Petri dish next to her.

“Girls, yourself included, I’m sure, think about this moment, dream about it, worry about it, from an early age. Am I right?” I said, trying to absorb something of what she was feeling. You know, like I was a girl.

“Did you practice, perhaps pressing your lips to a mouth made of your thumb and index finger, there in your pink and sky blue-appointed, single-bed sanctum sanctorum?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Liz said. But the red rising from beneath the throw, up her neck and glowing like hot coals on her cheeks told me otherwise.

“A guy can’t think that far ahead, would never give that first kiss a dry-run. It isn’t like rehearsing his expression of insouciant cool in the steamed-up mirror behind that locked bathroom door. You figure one night it just happens.”

I could see her lean in now, her warm interest overcoming her cool displeasure.

“ Ya know, it’s uncharted, virgin, that first feeling of neo-carnal warmth a guy feels glowing off that girl, that woman, Her. The smell of her recharged perfume in the dark is heady stuff, sweaty, intoxicating, inviting.”

Liz pulled her legs from beneath her and hugged them to her chest, resting her chin on her knees.

“Then that feeling of her mouth drawing closer, warmer, tropical, her breath sharing mine, mine with hers. My shaking hand on the small of her back, hers rising to slide within my black hair bristling like a porcupine’s quills at the back of my neck.

“Then you simply fall into that wet, warm pool of flesh, that doorway to the pounding trip-hammer heart, the unknown, the soon-enough revealed. After that, the fall becomes a climb and dive from the high board. Then another. Then…”

“You’re not playing me, are you, Erik?” Liz said. “I mean, is this really how you felt?”

“Oh, yeah. I can still feel it. Walking away, whistling my quiet, night-time whistle through the ivied posh, the ever-freshly painted not-so and my own not-very neighborhoods home, my left hand touching my flushed cheek, my lips that tasted of strawberry lip gloss, the smell of her perfume still on my fingers, Charlie I think it was,” I said, looking deeply into Liz’s brown eyes.

“Wow, Erik, that’s more than I ever expected,” she said, cuddling up close to me, putting her sandy-haired head on my shoulder.

“But that’s all I remember,” I said.

“You jerk,” she said. “I’ll bet it wasn’t this memorable.”

And then she gave me a warm, wet kiss full of promise, momentous and unforgettable. And I felt that spin and drop like I hadn’t felt since that first time.

Only rated NC-17.

For Day 22 of my Story-a-Day challenge, I was encouraged to make my prose as purple as I liked, in a quest to find out how much description I really need. We’ll, as a poet in the other side of my other literary life, I tend to throw the schmaltz around pretty liberally.  If you don’t think so, just take a look at the previous to poems I posted. I’m not sure I took a deep dive into it in my story, but I hope there’s enough gooey description in here to satisfy.

Return of the Bungu

Birch Creek Pictograph panel. Birch Creek Valley, Idaho. 5.15.10

Dainape-wenoo’-mukua, Man Carrying Spirits on His Back, always looked around once again to see if he was followed before he entered. A great priest such as he could ill afford any mere hunter or child, let alone a woman, find the source of his dream medicine.

Man Carrying Spirits would part the bushes that hid the entrance to his sacred space within the bluffs above of the River That Moves Like a Snake. He carried with him a piece of wood the length of his arm whose end he’d dipped in pine pitch. With his fire-starter stones he’d spark a patch of dry grass and light his torch before entering the cave only he knew.

Pushing his torch before him and crawling into the small opening, Man Carrying Spirits could feel the cool breeze coming from within the cave on his face. It smelled of mud and moss and iron and it always gave him renewed vigor. Once through the opening, the priest was able to stand, for he had entered the first chamber of the spirits, the one he found as a boy and from which he carried home stones in a sack on his back that bore the marks of the Ancient Ones.

As he held his torch high, he could see the marks they painted onto the cave walls, circles and stick figures of men holding spears standing above other men who lay at their feet. But these paintings of victorious men at war were not the primary reason he came to his sacred space. That lay in the chamber behind a rock at the far end of the first gallery.

Pushing aside the rock, Man Carrying Spirits would feel the great whoosh of dank air, the breath of the ancients, blow his long hair from his face. It was as if they were saying, “Open your eyes, my son, to what we share only with you.”

As he stepped into the secret chamber, he’d quietly sing an incantation seeking guidance and the blessings of the Ancient Ones, for his people were hungry and game was growing scarce in their small hunting grounds. Man Carrying Spirits’ mission was to beseech the Ancient Ones to bring back the herds of buffalo and more elk and deer than the few his hunters could bring down with their spears and arrows.

Once again, he raised his torch, singing as he circled the chamber, its walls towering above him seemingly as tall as the bluffs within which they were hidden. No one would ever understand what he saw lit by the small circle of torchlight. He didn’t fully understand, but he knew they represented a powerful medicine only the Ancient Ones mastered.

On the wall were the faint drawings in charcoal and white and ochre mud of men chasing beasts Man Carrying Spirits had never seen, never considered possible to exist. There were scenes of great bison taller than a man hurtling over cliffs as men stampeded them forward, as his people hunted them to this day.

But mixed among these were fearsome beasts, some with horns growing from their noses, some like slender bison but their humps set further along their backs, some towering humped monsters with long horns extending from their mouths.

But the drawings that intrigued him most were of fat animals that resembled dogs, only much larger. Perhaps if these beasts would return to their hunting grounds, they would provide easier game to kill and more meat than The People could harvest from the deer and elk that had grown so scarce. He knew this animal would be the key to his people’s survival.

He reached into his parfleche sack and withdrew two small deerskin bags, one filled with bear grease and the other with mud from the place in the River that Runs Like a Snake where the mountain bled white along its banks.  He poured some of the dried mud powder into the grease and mixed it with his finger. He took a daub of that mixture and outlined and colored in the picture of the animal as he prayed to some great Dog God he thought held power over the animal. Then, gathering his things, he’d withdraw from the medicine chamber, push the rock over its entrance and crawl back into the sunlight beating upon the bluffs above the River that Runs Like a Snake.

But the hunting failed to improve and The People had to move further south, requiring Man Carrying Spirits to travel great distances back to his sacred place to pray and gather his spirit medicine.

Growing older, he decided to take on an apprentice who he believed could follow in his place as intermediary between The People and the spirit world. He chose young Daigwade-dugaani, Talks in the Night, who had always sat quietly listening as Man Carrying Spirits told tales of the ancient times and the great beasts that lived along with The People, but were no more.

The men would laugh at Man Carrying Spirits, claiming the old priest was going mad with age or had been touched by a bad spirit during one of his disappearances. But Talks in the Night was resolute in his faith in the old man.

On his first trip to Man Carrying Spirits’ sacred place, Talks in the Night was frightened by the drawings of monsters by the Ancient Ones.

“Don’t be afraid of these drawings, Grandson,” Man Carrying Spirits said. “They have great medicine, but were put here by the Ancient Ones for me to find and talk with them, beseeching them for the blessings they represent. Blessings in war, in hunting and in living as The People.”

“I see, Grandfather, but they are such odd and frightening creatures. Except that one,” Talks in the Night said, pointing to a depiction of Man Carrying Spirits’ Dog God. “That one speaks to my spirit, to my heart.”

“You feel the same as I do, Grandson. Should we encounter this creature again, it will bring great medicine to our people. I am certain of that.”

“I can see why you would not want to share this knowledge with The People. They would not understand and so would consider this an evil place, bewitched, full of bad medicine,” the apprentice said.

“But I knew you would see the drawings for what they are, connecting us to the ancient ones and their world,” Man Carrying Spirits said. “Come, let me teach you the incantation to summon the Dog God to return this fine animal to our people so they will not have empty stomachs in the winter.”

Before they left, Man Carrying Spirits dipped his finger into a mixture of grease and crushed charcoal and dabbed it upon the hindquarters of the white beast.

“This represents one more time I have prayed to the Dog God to bring this animal back to The People. Let us go home, Grandson.”

It came to pass that Man Carrying Spirits’ eyesight succumbed to his years and the world grew dark to him, so he relied on Talks in the Night not only as his apprentice, but his eyes as well. The old priest’s body could no longer accept the rigorous trip back to his sacred place. He would send Talks in the Night to invoke the ancient ones, certain they would listen to the boy whose spirit he felt was as pure as his own. The old priest would go as far as he could and then would wait in a shelter for the boy to return, then ask him what he had seen on his journey.

One day, having spent from dawn to dusk praying in the caves, Talks in the Night was almost back to the place he had left his teacher, when he heard the great noise, a pounding as if in his heart. As the sound grew closer, he thought it sounded something like the sound of the bozheena, the bison, when they ran during the hunt. But this was different, a sharper sound that startled him, so he climbed a tree to both hide and to give him a longer view of what was approaching.

He saw the dust cloud from behind the rise, but could not make out what was making it. Then he heard the snorting, and eventually, the scream. From around the bluff came a herd of animals fleeter than any bison, any deer, any elk he had ever seen. At the head of the herd ran an animal of almost white, save for its rear quarters, which bore the black spots Man Carrying Spirits dappled on the cave paintings.

It was the Dog God returning the magical creatures to His People, just as Man Carrying Spirits had prayed for and foretold. The beasts thundered by just below the branch upon which he crouched, their legs seemingly whirling like a child’s spinning wheel.

After they passed, Talks in the Night jumped from his perch and ran to the shelter of his teacher, but the old man was on the trail when he found him.

“Did you see them, Grandson? Did you see them? It was the Dog God and his herd, was it not? Nothing in our world sounds like that, screaming like the wind and rumbling like thunder. What did they look like, Grandson?”

“Just as the Ancient Ones and you drew them, Grandfather. Their leader, the Dog God himself, even bore the spots you put on his hindquarters. But these animals will be difficult to hunt, they are so big, so swift. They also are too beautiful, too full of strong medicine to hunt. They must have another reason for coming back to our country,” Talks in the Night said.

“As they ran past, I had a vision, Grandson. In my vision, I saw the Dog God and one of the Ancient Ones together, chasing down the bison, but the Ancient One was not running next to the Dog God. Somehow he seemed as one with him. Most curious,” the old man said.

“Shall we go back and tell The People of this miracle,” Grandfather?” the boy asked.

“Not yet, boy. I would like to capture one to bring back first. Otherwise, they would think us mad.

“We must chase one into one of the canyons with one door, then get a rope on it. We will pray that it sees we mean it no harm so it might not kills us,” Man Carrying Spirits said with a small laugh.

A week later, Talks in the Night was able to chase an inattentive one of the creatures, which he called a bungu, which was a contracted version of the words meaning “whirling legs,” into the box canyon and slip a rope over its head. Together, he and Man Carrying Spirits sang and talked to the beast until it quieted.

“Help me onto its back, Grandson. I wish to see if my vision was true,” Man Carrying Spirits said.

“Grandfather, you are a great priest. You brought the Dog God back to this country. But I fear this beast is too wild to accept you,” the boy said.

“We must have faith, boy. You believed in me and my visions before, it is now time for you to see my greatest one come to being.”

Drawing closer and closer, gently singing and holding a fistful of grass, the old priest reached out and felt the animal calmly snort as it smelled its first whiff of man. As Man Carrying Spirits drew closer to its side, his apprentice helped him to its back. The animal turned its head and snapped at the boy, but allowed the old man to sit on its back.

The Shoshone people would talk for generations about the first time they saw the animal we know as the horse and how Man Carrying Spirits rode upon its back to show how it would help feed The People, just as the old priest foretold.

My story-a-day prompt for Day 20 was to write a story that focuses on the discovery/invention/ramifications of something that shapes my characters’ physical world. I wondered what it must’ve been like to be the first Native American of your tribe to see the horse arrive in your country after the Spaniards brought them to Mexico and the American Southwest. I chose the Shoshone people of southern Idaho because I wanted to incorporate cave drawings representing original horses that roamed the Plains and left prehistoric North America for Asia over the land bridge. I discovered there were such drawings discovered near the Snake River. I’m sure paleontologists and anthropologists will poke more holes in the story than I provided, but, hot damn this was fun. 

Restless

I didn’t know if she awoke before I did or I before she. I only know I could feel her eyes upon me.

Just not her touch.

“Yes, another restless night,” I said.

“No, you didn’t keep me awake,” I lied.

The ceiling did. Consciousness did. Worry did. Old truths did. Fantasies did. Longing did. Guilt did. I did. But I couldn’t tell her that.

“No, I didn’t know I kicked and thrashed all night,” I said. But the covers lying in disarray on my side told a different story. One where if looked as if I ran and swam and crawled my way across this No-Man’s-Land searching for somewhere to tuck in until the barrage lifted. But dawn lifted first.

I looked over at the clock and, as it has for the past weeks, it taunted me with a left-hand number less than six.

“I don’t know if I can make it today,” I said, sensing that sinking feeling in my chest again, an emptiness like it had been crushed dry. But I knew I had to get up and bump my way through another day, fighting off the sleep that never quite came last night.

“No, I haven’t dozed off again, just…gathering myself,” I said. I’d been locked in another bout of the woolgathering inattentiveness on the daydreams that substituted those I never had at night anymore. Night had become a wasteland of artillery flashes, reds and yellows and whites cutting through the darkness, after which the colors of days were smothered by the darkness of exhaustion.

“I wish I knew,” I said when she asked why I’d had another rough night. But she knew why as well as I did.

I took a deep breath, sighed it away like I’d sighed away another restless night, filling the room with wordless exclamations, near-silent calls for rescue. Sighed it away like I sighed away the covers on my side. Sighed it away like I would this day and the last and most likely the next.

But before I pulled myself from the ravaged percale plain upon which we lost another hope without a dream to support it, I kissed my fingers to reach out and touch her, to let her know one more time. But they came to rest upon her empty pillow with which I shared these nightly battles between damned consciousness and blessed oblivion.

My very short story for Day 19 of my May 2017 story-a-day challenge. No outside prompt today. Just a carryover from the poem I woke to at that ungodly hour again. These too-short, dreamless nights can kill you, but they also can inspire you to dreamy inspiration, too. Until you finally drop…